The gender divide within the technology industry has been obvious for years, but new programs and campaigns have emerged to encourage young girls and women to consider careers in IT.
While 95% of young girls say they like -- or even love -- technology, only 9% say they're definitely interested in pursuing an IT career, according to The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a nonprofit IT training organization. Since people often choose a career path before selecting a college major, campaigns that try to close the gender gap need to target younger women and girls.
"Whether it's intentional or unintentional, we start getting pretty clear messages around the middle school age that steers girls away from not just tech, but science, math and complexity, said Margaret Dawson, vice president of product marketing and cloud evangelist for HP Cloud Services. "This is still an issue because it really filters down the options that [girls] think they have as they move forward, and we really need to reach more girls with programs, mentors and coaches."
Programs and initiatives boost visibility of careers in IT for women
Although women make up half of the U.S. workforce, they account for only 28% of core IT occupations, according to CompTIA. With this in mind, the organization recently launched Dream IT, a program of online tools and educational resources -- as well as organized evangelizing by CompTIA members and other IT leaders -- that promotes tech careers for girls and women.
We aren't doing anything to promote and encourage girls at an early age to consider careers in IT, even though our youth has a love affair with technology.
senior VP of industry relations, CompTIA
"There are 500,000 open positions in IT in the U.S., but the numbers of women in IT -- especially in management positions -- are falling below some developing countries, so we have a huge issue here," said Nancy Hammervik, senior vice president of industry relations for CompTIA. IT careers are lucrative, unemployment rates are low compared to the national average, and job satisfaction scores are also very high for tech careers -- especially for women, she said. "However, we aren't doing anything to promote and encourage girls at an early age to consider careers in IT, even though our youth has a love affair with technology," Hammervik said.
The new initiative will equip Dream IT speakers with age-appropriate materials that they can use to speak to girls and women at schools or community programs about the opportunities within the IT industry, Hammervik said.
Alongside Dream IT, CompTIA is working to push for legislation that will support and promote women in IT, and even work to change IT education within schools, Hammervik said. "Because of our focus [is] on advocacy and education, CompTIA is in the unique position to use our resources to really have a dramatic impact on the industry," she said.
Nonprofit associations and academic organizations aren't the only groups addressing the gender divide. Large IT players are also getting involved -- including Microsoft and Cisco.
Among other educational initiatives and community outreach efforts, Cisco participates in the annual Girls in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Day, an international event organized by the International Telecommunication Union. Cisco's Girls in ICT Day activities include visits to 18 Cisco offices across 18 countries for girls between the ages of 13 to 18. The visits include tours, as well as the opportunity to learn more about career opportunities within IT by interacting with women working at Cisco and within its partners and customers, as well as using Cisco's collaboration technology -- Telepresence and Jabber -- to join with other girls participating in ICT Day around the world.
It's never too early to begin encouraging interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers, and promoting participation in these fields is important even at the middle-school level, said Harbrinder Kang, vice president of corporate affairs for Cisco. At the high-school level, it's about highlighting the success of female leaders within the IT industry and offering examples of the broad range of career options -- from engineering to product marketing -- that exist within IT.
"It's very interactive," Kang said. "Our panels -- consisting of both women and men -- offer guidance and advice, as well as what the career paths look like and what turns they experienced along the way."
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The path to a tech career isn't always reached by traditional means. Amy Arnold, senior network engineer for the city of Lewisville in North Texas and an IT blogger, hadn't always aspired to work in the IT industry. She holds an undergraduate degree in arts and humanities. She began to consider an IT career after determining law school wasn't her calling. She started taking Cisco's Networking Academy classes at night. "It was a start, and after that I ended up pretty quickly finding a networking position with a value-added reseller," she said.
But Arnold also received encouragement at an early age from her father, an IT professional, and she noticed the difference in STEM education for boys and girls. "For the most part, teachers haven't invested or challenged girls as much when it comes to STEM topics," she said.
And often, specific STEM programs aren't an option for some schools, CompTIA's Hammervik said. "It's hard for our kids to really get an interest in IT at the primary or even high-school level because the programs just aren't there."
Careers in IT: After early exposure, building confidence for the future
More initiatives aimed at presenting IT as an option for girls are necessary, Arnold said. "I also think the idea of helping women feel like they aren't alone, and building up their confidence is great," she said. "I like the endeavors that bring both men and women to the table to address bringing more talent in."
And ignoring the gender gap won't help the issue, Cisco's Kang said. "If you don't call it out, you end up gravitating toward cultural norms," he said. "I think it's important to shine a light on it and then put metrics in place, or you won't get the level of movement you want."
The gap between men and women in tech careers doesn't point to capability, said HP's Dawson, who is involved with Women in Technology, a professional association, and has spoken at several industry conferences and panels. "It's more about willingness to try something different, and taking advantage of opportunities to grow," she said.